David Cannadine launches Victorious Century by quoting Dickens:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.”

This is the ideal epigraph for an account which opens shortly after the French Revolution and navigates between rival claims to show the Kingdom and its absentmindedly acquired Empire as they seemed, and really were, between the 1800 Act of Union with Ireland and 1906’s Liberal general-election landslide.

Another epigraph comes from Marx:

“Men make their own history, but they do not do so freely . . . but rather under circumstances which directly confront them, and which are historically given and transmitted.”

Someone has inserted “[and women]” into this—a tiny interpolation underlining how provisional history is, reminding us that the past is always battleground.

The untidy title—the “century” is really a century-and-a-bit—signals the complexity of that far-off, still close country so sentimentalized by the right and impugned by the left.  The period 1815-1914, the demarcation favored by other historiographers, is too neat, as processes proceed heedless of calendars or consistency, and the past is forever present.  Our tendency to tidy up the world in retrospect and ascribe coherence to circumstance obscures empathy and understanding.  Conservative notions of a national apogee on whose imperium the sun never set, or the Empire as “a Hitlerian project on a grand scale” (Richard Gott, reviewing Cannadine’s Ornamentalism in 2001), or cultural clichés about Victorians as sexually repressed prudes reveal more about our century than they do the 19th.  In their place, David Cannadine offers “the elements of sameness and similarity, and also the elements of strangeness and surprise,” of a century we only think we know.

One expects historical nuance from the garlanded originator of Ornamentalism, The Pleasures of the Past, In Churchill’s Shadow, and The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy.  In The Undivided Past (2013) Cannadine assailed simplistic histories that “sunder all the peoples of the world into belligerent collectivities”—although his ideal of humanity’s “essential unity” arguably owes more to Whiggism than to historical reality.  Elsewhere, he has criticized sub-specialized scholarly approaches—the “craze for national heritage,” and complacent belief in continuity—while Ornamentalism was a rebuke to Edward Said’s Orientalism.  In his essential fairness, David Cannadine typifies old-school Englishness, if so “sundering” a term is permissible.

Polymathism is likewise expectable from the editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, who has been involved also with the Royal Historical Society, the National Archives, English Heritage, and other culture-shaping institutions, including the British Academy, of which he is president.  Cannadine is married to Linda Colley, herself no inconsiderable annalist, so even his breakfast-table conversations are probably bracing.  Multifarious interests allow him to see old situations from many angles, from high culture to high politics, religion to science, diplomacy to industry, economics to ephemera, local government to military campaigns and agriculture, thus giving his work a satisfying roundedness.  Cannadine has an enviable acquaintanceship with writers few now consult—Buckle, the Grossmiths, Meredith, and Somerville—to add to the obvious Arnold, Austen, Carlyle, Collins, Darwin, Eliot, Mill, Scott, Tennyson, Thack eray, Trollope, and Wells.

In his view Ireland’s annexation was propelled by many considerations, the most immediate one being the importance of denying Napoleon back access to England.  Boney’s wars would stay in swing for 15 years, with a respite while he sojourned on Elba, before his Cent Jours and the “damned nice . . . nearest run thing” that was Wellington’s Waterloo.  The war cast millions of Britons into penury, but it also launched the industrial economy, cemented the modern fiscal state, and forged national pride.  Limpid contemporary watercolors depict new docks on the Isle of Dogs, the great tableau of Nelson’s funeral, and Welsh rioters repulsed, in contrast with Cruik shank’s violently colored caricatures showing Wellington greeting Blücher while improbably waving a sword, and the arrest of the preposterous Cato Street conspirators of 1820.

The war also created an awareness of the hazards of upending orders, an object lesson to the Whigs (usually landowners, and generally grander than their Tory counterparts).  Governments were prepared to use ruthless force, as at the “Peterloo Massacre” in 1819 when dragoons charged a Manchester crowd, killing 15 people and injuring hundreds.  The 1830’s seethed with unrest, ameliorated by caution and nostalgia.  The Reform Act of 1832 abolished the resented “rotten boroughs”—most notoriously Old Sarum, a constituency consisting of a ruined castle and several farms, where 11 electors elected Pitts as MPs.  Yet even after that, not even ten percent of British males could participate in selecting parliamentarians, while the House of Lords remained hereditary.  One pivotal figure in this period was Robert Peel, transitional in his own right—son of a cotton manufacturer but also a landed baronet with a double first from Oxford.  His Tamworth Manifesto of 1834 laid out a pragmatic Toryism that simultaneously accepted the reforms of 1832 while seeking to avert, or blunt, further change.  Peel’s repeal in 1846 of the Corn Laws, which made food much more expensive, was opposed strongly by landowners—despite the fact that it was meant to “relegitimate and thus preserve aristocratic government.”  And a yearning for continuity amid change was represented by the 1840-60 architectural extravaganza that was Barry and Pugin’s Palace of Westminster, a new legislative hall built in a style five centuries old.

Books like Humphry Davy’s Consolations in Travel and George Combe’s The Constitution of Man challenged fundamental assumptions about religion and science.  Partly as reaction, the Oxford Movement came into being in 1833 when John Keble delivered his sermon on National Apostasy.  (Catholics had been emancipated four years previously.)  The National Portrait Gallery went up between 1832 and 1838, envisioned as both a Britain-builder and an uplifter of all classes.  Turner’s 1839 depiction of the Fighting Temeraire bound for the breaker’s yard, though dazzlingly original, was actually intended as an elegy.  Wordsworth evolved from republicanism to Toryism, and Coleridge, formerly a radical, advocated a “clerisy,” an elite to protect and think for the masses, while the architect James Wyatt erected towers in the High Gothic manner as “an embattled rebuke to the revived classicism of Revolutionary France.”  Tories inspired by Walter Scott founded the Young England movement, seeking an alliance of workers and aristocrats against newfangled “capitalists.”

The Empire that would be ominously overstretched by 1906 after encompassing one quarter of the globe was taking form hesitantly, and chiefly by happenstance; in part a legacy of Napoleonic times when the British had taken France’s outposts but owing also to a nascent sense that the British people and polity had some quasi-mystical civilizing destiny.  Growing ideas of Anglo-Saxon superiority and constitutional maturity complemented a need to match expansionist European rivals.  There was a growing, near-fanatical belief in free trade as simultaneously enriching of England and fostering global amity.  In 1852, Sir John Bowring, governor of Hong Kong, averred that “Jesus Christ is Free Trade, and Free Trade is Jesus Christ.”  Something of this influenced policymaking and, more strongly, popular opinion as the century elapsed.  By mid-century, Lord Palmerston’s “gunboat diplomacy” was wildly popular—cupidity and martial might euphemized as the projection and protection of British interests, and internationalist idealism.

The 1840’s were a disastrous decade in which a potato blight starved a million Irish to death and forced millions more to emigrate, many of them to England to toil on the burgeoning new canals and railways, thus arousing nativist resentment and swelling the ranks of the radicals.  Life expectancy in 1841 was 40 in England as a whole, 28 in Liverpool, and 27 in Manchester—yet the population of England, Wales, and Scotland rose from 18.5 million to 20.8 million between 1841 and 1851 (which the author misdescribes as “near five million extra mouths”).  There was much to criticize, as critics from Carlyle to Engels duly did, but there was also Paxton’s innovative Great Conservatory at Chatsworth (forerunner to the Crystal Palace), Tennyson’s Locksley Hall and Ulysses, Darwin, the postage stamp, the Christmas card, Fox Talbot’s photography, Brunel’s S.S. Great Britain, Stephenson’s Britannia Bridge, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

There was legislation to benefit children, workers, and animals—often pushed through by Tories who combined real social concern with disdain for vulgar industrialists: clean up water, dispose of sewage, improve policing, decrease drunkenness, and found libraries and museums.  Meanwhile, Whigs promoted municipal reform from both idealism and a desire to undermine Tory corporations.  The chasm between two great mid-century figures (and, it may be, between Liberalism and Toryism) is suggested in their individual reactions to becoming Prime Minister.  Gladstone: “The Almighty seems to sustain and spare me for some purpose of His own, deeply unworthy as I know myself to be.”   Disraeli: “Hurrah!  I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole!”

Growing irreligion was expressed in Tennyson’s 1849 In Memoriam

I falter where I firmly trod,


And falling with my weight of cares

Upon the great world’s altar-stairs

That slope thro’ darkness up to God.

In 1851, the Church of England was really the Church of a Quarter of England, and less than half of the population worshiped weekly.  In mundane compensation there was in the same year the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, seen by a fifth of the population, which gave monumental form to the industrial economy (although Paxton’s 30,000 glass panes were hand-blown).  The money the Exhibition raised paid for the sites for the V&A, Natural History, and Science Museums, Imperial College, and the Royal Albert Hall.  When the Crystal Palace was moved to south London in 1854, the surrounding park was decorated by life-size, cutting-edge concrete dinosaurs, still extant, and startling among now stately trees.

Samuel Smiles’ books, produced between the 1850’s and 1880’s, convey the combined morality and practicality of life—Self-Help, Lives of the Engineers, Character, Thrift, and Duty.  A slew of new schools were founded for the upper and aspirant classes, their curricula colored by notions of English exceptionalism and including such tendentious works as Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome and History of England.  Newly literate workers founded mechanics’ institutes sponsoring lectures by leading thinkers, and the first trade unions.  But there was also insecurity, as Britain was overtaken economically by the United States, Irish issues toppled governments, anarchists caused scares (in a rare misreading, Cannadine draws parallels between them and the fears raised today by immigration), and the craze arose for crime fiction, most famously Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, though in fact violent crime was in steep decline.  Exploits like Napier’s annexation of Sind and the Indian Mutiny inflamed imperial awareness.  (Punch and other publications polemicized  the Black Hole of Calcutta, the death of Gordon, and other real or reported outrages.)  The Empire was “held together by sentiment and bluff at least as much as by power and force,” but it was becoming conceptually central, expanded by the Diamond Jubilee in 1897 into an epitome of greatness,  though subsequently converted into a source of shame.  Yet even at its peak it was a matter for uncertainty; the celebrations of the relief of Mafeking were so overdone they inspired the verb mafficking.  Benson’s words to Elgar’s Coronation Ode of 1902—“Wider still, and wider, shall thy bounds be set”—were contemporaneous with Kipling’s 1897 Recessional:

Far-called, our navies melt away;

On dune and headland sinks the fire:

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Now Kipling seems infinitely more insightful, as Britons confront a future shorn not just of empire but also of community, and the prospect of a country ashamed of its history, or at best trading on it.  Brexit was a bugle-blast from a storied past, although it is yet too soon to say whether “Last Post,” “Reveille,” or just another inchoate emotion was being sounded.  Courtesy of David Cannadine’s subtle study, we have in the meantime a better idea of what that past was, and how it felt to live in it.


[Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906, by David Cannadine (New York: Viking) 624 pp., $40.00]